A War of Narratives

“The United States is engaged in a war of ideas – and it’s losing.”

This is the opening line of J.M. Berger’s recent piece in for The Atlantic, one that looks at the narratives coming from both sides, and how and why America is perceived to be losing. Berger does not necessarily agree with the above statement; instead he uses it as a point of exploration for investigating how ISIS’s narrative has been constructed, and how it can best be torn apart.

Berger points out, “The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population,even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.”

Regardless of widespread condemnation of ISIS’s actions, and vigilant counter-propaganda being produced, ISIS’s strategic narrative has proven to be stronger, more comprehensive, and ultimately more successful in many ways than those meant to counter it.

One narrative that ISIS has built is one of fear. The terrorist attacks that occur with more and more regularity are meant to incite just that – terror. Through these attacks the group has also built a narrative of strength – it would not succeed in continuing to gain recruits if the group was perceived as weak. ISIS as a force has promoted and ridden on these narratives through widespread use of social media, a phenomenon that Berg points out could only happen in this type of highly networked world. Producing propaganda videos and utilizing Twitter and Facebook are two ways that the group has succeeded in disseminating their message to a huge audience.

Despite the fact that social media sites continually try to block members of the group from posting, multiple second-hand videos of beheadings, re-posted by other (not necessarily extremist) users, each have over 1 million views. By contrast, the US State Department produced counter-propaganda video Welcome to the “Islamic State” Land (part of the Think Again Turn Away campaign), posted on the Department of State’s official YouTube channel, has only around 880,000 views. It cannot be denied that ISIS’s propaganda has had a hugely wide reach, regardless of what percentage of viewers agree with their ideas.

Part of this is shock value. As Simon Cottee writes for Defense One, “ISIS has beheading videos. The CSCC doesn’t. Beheading videos are shocking and repugnant. But they are also weirdly fascinating – and they go viral for this reason.”

Here, he hits on another key point – ISIS is succeeding through shock and fear, not through the strength of their ideas. In what has been presented as a “war of ideas” or an “ideological war,” ISIS’s actual ideas are the weakest part of the group’s narrative.

Berger claims, “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority – people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the internet.”

One way to successfully build a strategic counter-narrative is to capitalize on this weakness. This is being done by campaigns such as #notmyname, which disseminates a powerful anti-ISIS message from Muslims themselves, invalidating ISIS’s ideological message and incorrect interpretations of Islam.

By and large, however, this has not been the approach up until this point. Rather than attempting to disrupt ISIS’s process, the US has focused on diminishing the appeal of terrorism. The Think Again Turn Away video is one example of this, aimed at those believed to be at risk for joining ISIS by somewhat sarcastically highlighting the true atrocities taking place. In his article Berger quotes Will McCants in The ISIS Apocalypse: “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” The audience that ISIS targets for recruitment is miniscule compared to those who rally against the group.

Terrorism does not have mass appeal. It appeals to a small minority of (admittedly dangerous and concerning) people. Perhaps then, instead of focusing our narrative on these minorities, a better strategic narrative would be to rally together global communities against ISIS (such as the Islamic community in various nations around the world), showing unity despite cultural differences, and exhibiting strength in a non-violent way through the force of rational ideas.


Digital Citizen Programs for Kids

Internet governance is one of the most pressing global policy issues of our time. The way the internet is governed and the rights we have to access its infinite wells of information have an immediate and profound impact on how we define contemporary society as well as how we communicate, locally and internationally. The internet has allowed for widespread and immediate access to news, information, and exchanges from all parts of the world. It acts as a forum for politics, culture, business, and social life. In a more immediate way, it has become a new form of digital communication. Given its reach and the depths of its data the questions of how it is used, who is using it, and who controls it are central. In this day and age, societies around the world rely heavily on the internet for all manners of activities, making its governance a more and more important topic of consideration.

Alongside this, the question can be raised of what it means to be a digital citizen? What are the responsibilities and “rules” or “laws” associated with such citizenship? When communicating on a platform that allows for interaction and exchange between people from so many different nations all around the world, who sets the rules of acceptable use? How can laws span transnationally? This is where the issue of governance comes in.

One area where this seems particularly pressing is with children. In most developed countries, the current generation is being raised with a high level of internet literacy. They grow up using computers, interacting with touch screens, and having access to more information than could ever fit into the libraries of older generations’ youth. While this has many benefits, there are dangers as well. Children could inadvertently access content not suitable for their age, or, more often, use social media as a way to bully or taunt their peers.

After a quick Google search, I discovered that some middle, and even elementary schools are beginning to include digital citizenship training programs into the curriculums. One program, based in the Tampa Bay area, says it aims “to stop cyberbullying before it starts.” In the school’s Digital Citizenship program, schoolchildren as young as five begin to learn how to use the internet responsibly and safely. Certified counselors teach students about safe internet practices as well as responsible social media use. For younger children, the program explores how to ask for permission to use online tools, and who and who not to communicate with online.

Steve Williams, the school’s Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning explains, “We’re really challenging [the students] to think that their digital footprint has long-lasting implications.”
This is an interesting idea, and one that I think is very necessary. Youth today, especially in America and other “first world” countries, are being raised in an increasingly digital environment. Just as laws and rules of behavior in real life are learned in childhood, so must be the rules of digital citizenship. Given the widespread use of technology and the internet in education, communication, and social interactions among children and teens, it is necessary to give them the necessary tools to use these technologies safely and responsibly.

The WSIS and a New Paradigm for Governance

The World Summit on the Information Society, or the WSIS, concluding its first phase in Geneva in 2003, offered a new paradigm for global governance, one that put issues of global governance regarding information and communication at the forefront and opened the stage for new, non-state actors.

The WSIS contributed to balancing power within information and communication governance by advocating for an increased role for civil society and its associated non-state actors. The previous governance structure, which had allotted almost total sovereignty to nation states, created inequalities in access to and use of information and communication technologies between the global north and south. When power was not equally distributed among actors in a global governance environment, it created imbalance in authority over who ruled these technologies, which led to contestation over the rights associated with accessing, owning, and using information and communication tools.

WSIS allowed the role of the nation-state in global communication governance to be partially constrained by non-state actors such as multilateral bodies, transnational corporations, and international treaties. Marc Raboy, in his paper ‘The WSIS as a Political Space in Global Media Governance,” frames this as a good thing, illustrating that national sovereignty is no longer absolute.

Raboy proposes that “civil society has already moved towards a new paradigm and has begun to articulate a new conception of society based on communication between human beings” (13). This insinuates that government to government communication, in this new paradigm, is being challenged by civil society, and that peoples and non-state actors are beginning to have a new and increasingly participatory role in governance. Raboy states that “the great achievement of civil society remains the great degree of coordination between the entities making it up, the development of networks, expertise and common projects, exchange of ideas and particular ways of doing this” (13). The WSIS, encouraging a new and more balanced strategy of participation, has facilitated this degree of coordination and cooperation between state and non-state actors. It has made space for a more active role of civil society and its associated entities, acting not only as observer but also as contributor.

Raboy also states that it is not a question of building a more equitable information society but of developing a communication society. The Civil Society Declaration Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs addresses this need for a new conception of information and communication. It is no longer appropriate to refer to an ‘information society’ but to ‘information and communication societies.’ This shift has occurred alongside the shifting power balance between government and civil society. The addition to communication and its associated rights more broadly encompasses media issues surrounding knowledge ownership, public domain, cultural diversity and the concentration and commercialization of media.

The WSIS proposes that there is no single information, communication or knowledge society, but instead there are many that exist on the local, national and global levels. There is also potential for cross-over between these levels as well. This requires a different consideration of the freedom of information vs. the right to communicate. The inclusion of non-state actors in information and communication global governance highlights these different areas of needs. For example, a government might wish to control or regulate certain types of information as well as how that information can be communicated and by whom. On the other hand, members of press groups such as Reporters sans frontiers or the World Press, what Raboy calls “partisans of freedom of expression,” call for different needs and rights with regards to communication. The separation of rights associated with information and communication, as well as the inclusion of communication in the framework of an information society, have been key debates when it comes to governance on state and non-state levels.

The WSIS was significant in that it provided a platform for these confrontations between opposing actors and views, leading to a new paradigm has come into existence in a new political space, prompted by the inclusion of civil society’s more participatory role.

Information-Industrial Complex and its Potential Consequences

In Chapter 2 of The Real Cyber War, Powers and Jablonski discuss the information-industrial complex, looking at how it came about historically, mirroring the military-industrial complex of the Cold War era, and what it might mean for both industry and government in the long-term.

A “keystone” moment in the rise of information-industrial complex was the shift “from adversarial to cooperative and laissez-faire rule” between government and business (61). The authors explain that information-industrial complex means that there will be a co-dependence between government and the private sector information and technology industry, whereby the government invests directly in certain industries, which then become reliant on government support as the government becomes reliant on that industry’s technology and information. Powers and Jablonski predict that this type of co-dependence, in the long-term, will have negative consequences for both sides, being beneficial neither to American statecraft nor the technology industry.

It is this co-dependence, then, that is of the most critical concern. In the early 1990s, Senetor Al Gore called for new information and technology policy, one with “an agenda for public-private partnership to construct an advanced NII to benefit all Americans” (61). In theory, it would “encourage private sector investment, promote competition, provide open access to the networ for all information providers and users, ensure universal service, and create a flexible regulatory environment that can keep pace with rapid technological and market changes” (61). It would push policy from an adversarial relationship between business and government toward one that was based on partnership and mutual reliance, which, as Powers and Jablonski illustrate through the military-industrial complex, can have negative implications for both sides.

New post-Cold War crises, such as 9/11 and the rise of China, have led to renewed government interest. This represents the commodification of digital information, and a shift from use value to exchange value. In a post-9/11 environment, digital information that previously had use value, such as phone and internet usage, now has new exchange value in terms of security and surveillance. This, in turn, has led to even more public-private partnerships between the government and the private businesses providing phone and internet use to the public. This disrupts and puts at risk public interest, because government interest has inserted itself into the picture and intervened in the private sector.
Powers and Jablonski foreshadow the consequences of this industry and government codependence, and they look grim: weakened oversight, irregular accountability, and a lack of industry vitality and competitiveness. C. Wright Mills said, military-industrial complex, “There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and on the other, a political order” (52) This balance, where one is not tangled in the other, is what makes both business and democracy run smoothly and function properly. When there is mutual dependence between the private sector and the government, “where both sides benefit from and depend on the relationship for their survival,” there inherently become risks for both industry and government, and, importantly, for public interest.

The Role of Social Media in Imagining the Nation

One of the most recent phenomenons in the ongoing fragmentation of the media has been in the proliferation of social media as a means for individuals to direct and control their own access to, and consumption of news. Through the acts of blogging, posting, and sharing, individuals are more in control of media and its distribution than ever before, thanks in large part to widespread access to, and use of, the internet. In Chapter 3, The Globalization of Communication,  Elizabeth Hanson outlines the ways that different means of communication have spread globally, originating primarily in the US and Europe but ultimately changing the development and engagement of countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. While Hanson notes that the first telephone systems and computers, using expensive landlines, were not accessible to economically struggling nations in the global south, the invention of wireless technology in mobile cell phones and the internet made possible the much more rapid progress of communication in these places.

Putting these regions on the technological map was an important first step in linking them into the globalized network of communications. We can see today, as they grow and continue to take ownership over their media and communications policies, how it effects, or often disrupts, a sustained sense of nationhood. As Wanning Sun points out in the paper Foreign or Chinese? Reconfiguring the Symbolic Space of Chinese Media, one way that national media outlets can be used by governments is to foster a sense of nationalism, with an end that sometimes results in censorship or the complete manipulation of news coming in and out of the country. As agencies of international media access more and more parts of the world, these veils that supposedly protect the “nation” from outside influences are suddenly pulled back to reveal internal corruption.

In recent years, however, the media has spread beyond the control of national, and even private ownership, to the hands of regular citizens through social media. Where national media blocks certain content or selectively reports on corruption, crises, or national tragedies, social media in the hands of regular citizens can display more varied viewpoints (and as a result, a more authentic sense of national self) from sources all over the world. This type of sharing perhaps sustains a different sense of “nationhood,” one that exists outside of the government, and in fact often contradicts it, but nevertheless draws together a group of people living within the same national borders. Once prominent area where this was seen to be true was during the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Social media there was a tool of liberation and empowerment for populations throughout these regions, granting them the opportunity to speak freely in forums outside government control. As Pierre Omidyar pointed out in an article on social media empowerment, “In countries where traditional media is a tool of control, these new and truly social channels have the power to radically alter our world.”

In these places where there are strict governmental controls over traditional forms of media, social media offers and interesting alternative that promotes a different view of the “nation” – one that comes directly from the mouths and lives of the people living and comprising it. In this way, traditional media and social media present different ways of imagining and sustaining nationhood.

Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pierre-omidyar/social-media-enemy-of-the_b_4867421.html

International Communication in University Satellite Campuses

These days, students looking to pursue a higher education degree have seemingly endless options. Universities with specialized degrees exist in nearly every country in the world. One more recent trend in international communication is the spread of satellite or branch campuses of local universities. NYU has branded itself as “GNU” – “global network university” – envisioning their students moving and studying across their various international sites in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Johns Hopkins has campuses in Italy and China. As students at American, we are able to transfer our studies to the school’s sites in Madrid, Brussels, and Nairobi.

Clearly, the internationalization of education is becoming increasingly highly valued, but what does this mean with regards to theories of international communication? As American universities set up their campuses abroad, it contributes to the recognition of American brands, behaviors, education styles, and values in their host countries. In her study Rethinking Banal Nationalism: Banal Americanism, Europeanism, and the Missing Link Between Media Representations and Identities, Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova refers to the ideas of “banal nationalism” and, more specifically, “banal Americanism.” Citing Michael Billig’s concept of banal nationalism, where everyday representations of a nation build a shared sense of national belonging, Slavtcheva-Petkova defines banal Americanism as “related to the widespread process of Americanization” (46).

Satellite campuses of American universities directly contribute to the spread of Americanism abroad by placing their students in their own university setting, but in another country. This, like many other forms of banal nationalism, starts an implicit process of nation and brand identity by maintaining a shared sense of belonging across all campuses. Slavtcheva-Petkova lists signifiers such as national flags, recognition of leaders, and the use of “we” or “us” in speaking of a place as being signs of banal nationalism. In these university settings, perhaps the school’s mascot or college sweatshirts would equate to these signs, along with a continued use of “we” or “us” in referring to the overall identity of the university’s student population.

Beyond the immediate identification for students to their home university, the establishment of these campuses abroad contributes to the spread of American values and education approaches in foreign countries as well. Take, for example, NYU Paris, a program hosted by NYU that places the school’s students in Paris, at an NYU branch campus. Rather than enrolling directly in a French university, the participating students continue their NYU education, just in a different country. While this allows them to have a new array of cultural experiences, their education style remains distinctly American. They then carry the values associated with this into the experiences they have, giving their time abroad a distinctly American flavor.

Finally, these satellite campuses also create mini (and for the students there for a semester or year, temporary) diasporas of American students abroad. As Karim Karim points out in Re-viewing the ‘national’ in ‘international communication’, diaspora communities are changing, and in some ways challenging, the status of nation-states. The author points out that when a diaspora is firmly established within a larger national community, it creates a need for products, activities, and behaviors of the “home” culture. In a university setting, this could then contribute back to Slavtcheva-Petkova’s concept of banal Americanism, in which the Americanization of a foreign place begins to occur. Within these diaspora communities of branch campuses, students, while living in an abroad location, continue to live with and identify with their cohort of students from their home campus, perpetuating certain elements of their American life abroad. This, of course, is a generalization, as the possibility of living with host families, having international excursions, etc, also equally contributes to the opportunity for students to fully immerse themselves in their home culture, but in any case the very existence of a large base of American students in a foreign city does create these small diasporas.

Overall, international branch campuses of American universities create new lines of international communication, specifically through education. They open students, and the host cities, to understandings of American identity, and offer a way for students to ally themselves with this identity even when living abroad.


Karim H. Karim “Re-viewing the ‘National’ in ‘International Communication’ Through the Lens of Diaspora”  (Chapter 24)

Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova (2014) “Rethinking Banal Nationalism: Banal Americanism, Europeanism and the Missing Link between Media Representations and Identities” International Journal of Communication. Vol. 8.

Information Policy for Peace?

[In response to the discussion question, ‘For Powers and Jablonksi, what are the key tensions underscoring US information policy?’]

Shawn Powers and Michael Jablonski, in their book The Real Cyber War, discuss the foundations of US information policy, its historical roots as well as the underlying values that inform it. The authors argue that information policy in America is founded on two key beliefs: one, that information is a resource that can be governed by trade agreements, and two, that access to information promotes democracy, freedom, peace, and, as a “pleasant side effect,” promotes and protects US economic interests. It is the first belief that informs how US policy is formed and managed, while the second that reveals the tension existing within these policies. At the basis of US information aims lies a contradiction: the desire to create international systems that allow global access to information and deliver news and messages transnationally at low cost, while also needing to protect American economic and business interests. As Powers and Jablonski explore in their chapter, these two interests often do not go as seamlessly hand in hand as the US would like.  

Powers and Jablonski do an excellent job outlining the history of this tension, and how it has played into the way policy has developed in the US and internationally since WWI, so I won’t rehash their entire arguments here. One new and interesting angle to consider, perhaps, would be how this tension comes to light today. Today, while many public and private information, news, and media sources exist, one of the most common ways people share and disseminate news is through social media. The internet and social media platforms are easy and powerful tools to distribute information from nearly anywhere in the world to nearly anywhere else in the world. Having a reliable and fast internet connection is one of the biggest hurdles faced by developing countries, though one that is quickly being overcome. There also exist “dark” and “deep” parts of the web used for illegal activity that is out of reach of government control. One question that will be interesting to follow is, what, if any, effect do these new and very immediate forms of information exchange have on shaping policy?

Considering some of the pressing issues facing the world today, I have to call into question one of the underlying beliefs of US information policy: that access to information promotes democracy, freedom, and peace. When used by the US, or other Western nations, yes having the ability to easily reach and communication between nations is a valuable way to reach international publics and spread messages of democracy. President Woodrow Wilson pushed for “worldwide freedom of news, with important news going everywhere.” He stated that this was necessary for world peace because the “extension of democratic forms of government and the increasing closeness of contact between all parts of the world point to the conclusion that the ultimate basis of world peace is a common knowledge and understanding between the masses of the world” (Powers and Jablonski 38). He made this statement in 1917, just before the end of WWI, the biggest global conflict at that time. Today, however, the world faces very different threats than it did when US information policy began to be established. In today’s world, the sharing of news and worldviews does not always favor the side of democracy. Consider the way ISIS has usurped information sharing networks such as YouTube, Facebook, and other international sharing sites, posting news of their violent crimes and takeovers. These are examples of more public ways in which ISIS has utilized information sharing to its advantage. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that “ISIS is winning the social media war.” The FBI has also acknowledged that there is no way to monitor encrypted online communications between members of ISIS when they use the web’s “dark space” that is beyond the reach of US law enforcement surveillance. These encrypted communications appear to be a loophole in the control of the web, through which ISIS has been able to successfully recruit, radicalize, and plan. This has called to attention the potential need for new laws requiring technology firms to unlock messages if they appear to be from terrorists.

In their book, Powers and Jablonski outline what has shaped US information policy for the past hundred years, concentrating on the balance between open sharing for the promotion of democratic values vs. the consideration of US market interests. It will be interesting, as the world faces more and more global challenges involving the use and sharing of information, how policy changes in the next hundred years.